Expert Source: Toni Bernhard, author of How to Live Well With Chronic Pain and Illness, writes the Turning Straw Into Gold blog on PsychologyToday.com.
Most of us have patterns of behavior we’d like to fine-tune, and we understand that an earnest effort toward self-improvement can be a positive force in our lives. But when we feel habitually compelled to better ourselves, it’s also easy to wind up feeling like we’re never good enough.
Maybe you aspire to be more disciplined or improve your relationships. Perhaps you would like to be more spiritual, become savvier with money, or make healthier choices. Or maybe it seems like every time you get close to achieving a self-improvement goal, the goal shifts, and you can’t feel satisfied with what you’ve accomplished.
It’s important to remember that not everything is within your control, and there are some obstacles that no amount of willpower will budge. Further, change takes time, so if you’re waiting for everything to be perfect in order to feel OK — let alone great — about your life, you’ll be waiting a long time.
It’s also important to know the difference between what you can change and what you can’t, says author and teacher Toni Bernhard.
Bernhard challenges some common ideas about self-improvement, and provides suggestions for a more skillful — and satisfying — approach to personal growth.
Challenges to Overcome
- Believing you’re broken. “When we look upon ourselves as broken or as a problem to be solved, we only make our lives worse — the very opposite of self-improvement,” says Bernhard. “We’re not broken. Life is simply hard sometimes. That means, despite our best efforts, things don’t always turn out the way we hoped they would.”
- Thinking you’re completely fixable. “There are a lot of things about ourselves and our lives that we can fix, but there are a lot of things that we can’t,” Bernhard explains. “Continually trying to fix the latter only makes life harder on us.” Unfixable things may include physical conditions, psychological dispositions, family situations, or life circumstances like aging, grief, or loss.
- Believing you can think your way there. “We often buy into the idea that with the right attitude, the right thoughts, or the right spiritual orientation, we can heal ourselves of anything — but that’s often not the case,” she says. The mind is powerful, she notes, but not omnipotent.
- Having unrealistic expectations. Maybe you envision that one day you’ll get it all together: You’ll be organized, healthy, spiritually grounded, and financially set, and you’ll always act in alignment with your highest values. But in reality, “obstacles will arise,” says Bernhard. “We’re all incredibly busy, and we have responsibilities to other people. All of these things can make it difficult to reach our self-improvement goals.”
- Blaming yourself for failure. “One of the problems with the idea that we can fix ourselves,” says Bernhard, “is that we feel like failures when we come up against things we can’t change.” The result, she says, can be self-blame: I’m just not trying hard enough. What’s wrong with me?
- Assuming you’re supposed to feel a certain way. You may feel that your negative emotions — jealousy, anger, sadness, fear — get in the way as you try to make the changes you desire. While we certainly can control how we express our emotions, it’s impossible to feel peaceful or in control all the time, she notes. “Even the Dalai Lama admits that he gets angry sometimes.”
- Equating success with happiness. If you’ve noticed that your joy at hitting a goal or a milestone is short-lived, chalk it up to the nature of your ever-changing mind. “Reaching our goals isn’t what makes us happy,” Bernhard says. “Goals are always superseded by new goals.” A constant supply of new objectives could be a source of inspiration — or frustration.
6 Strategies for Success
- Embrace who you are today. The most valuable first step is to realistically evaluate where things stand for you now — demands on your time, financial considerations, your responsibility to others, and your health. “Make it your priority to work on accepting yourself with kindness and compassion,” Bernhard says. “Treat that as the starting point for making positive changes in your life.”
- Accept what you can’t change. Bernhard argues that the best way to attain peace of mind starts with fully accepting what you can’t control — including feelings, many life circumstances, and other people’s attitudes and behaviors. “It’s a big relief to recognize what we don’t control and can’t change, because then we can stop worrying about those things,” she says.
- Focus on your response to life. Once you’ve accepted what you can’t change, you can respond to negative situations with compassion, calmness, and as much positivity as possible. So, instead of focusing obsessively on how you want your life to be, Bernhard recommends adopting a more peaceful attitude and focusing on how to respond skillfully and gracefully to life’s circumstances — whether good or challenging.
- Be mindful. She suggests becoming more aware of your thinking — more mindful. “If we regularly practice being aware of our tendencies to think or behave in a certain way,” Bernhard notes, “we can catch ourselves and make better decisions.” This may bring you surprisingly closer to your goals.
- Give yourself credit. When you focus on your defects and never-ending “opportunities for improvement,” you may be unwilling to pat yourself on the back for the things you’ve done well. “We should appreciate how hard it can be at times to achieve even the smallest victory,” says Bernhard. Keep a lookout for small “wins” to celebrate, whether achievements at work, raising a happy child, skill at your favorite hobby, or just being a good friend.
- Dream and do anyway. It’s certainly beneficial to aspire to improve your current circumstances, she notes. Just as important as realistically assessing your current state is realistically assessing the obstacles you might encounter — and devising a sensible plan for overcoming them. Most important, according to Bernhard: When you fall short, figure out what happened, forgive yourself, and give it another go.
Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha By Tara Brach
“What a waste of our precious lives it is to carry the belief that something is wrong with us,” writes psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach. This book illustrates how learning to accept ourselves can help heal the self-judgment, perfectionism, and loneliness that leave us feeling unfulfilled.
“The Woman Who Couldn’t Stop Buying Self-Help Books” WBUR’s CommonHealth
Harvard psychotherapist and self-help-book author Jean Fain critiques the self-help movement in a balanced way, noting that self-help can block people from getting help from others.
Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture By Jessica Lamb-Shapiro
Lamb-Shapiro, the daughter of a psychologist and a parenting author, grew up in the self-help milieu. She examines it, critically, as she attempts to heal personal wounds with its help.